Research is a given when writing non-fiction texts. Journalists and authors of non-fiction books are no strangers to researching a piece before they start writing – but what about fiction authors?
If you’re writing a novel and wondering whether you need to research it, the answer is generally yes. The same rules that apply to non-fiction writers don’t necessarily apply to novelists, but research is nevertheless an important step in planning to write a novel.
There are plenty of things you can do to ensure you’re writing the most authentic novel possible. Setting, characters, plot details, historical influences, even genre and craft – all these elements and more can be researched to strengthen your knowledge and flesh out your book.
So how exactly should you approach the research process?
Let’s take a look at seven top tips to get you started.
1. Establish a system to organise and store research
Before you start researching, it’s imperative to get organised. There’s no point collecting hundreds of bits of information only to create a disorganised mess that you won’t be able to navigate later!
Every writer works differently, so think about your own methods of organisation and what might work best for you when it comes to sorting and storing your research.
Here are a few organisation methods to consider:
- A physical folder or binder, divided into clearly labelled sections such as Setting, Characters etc., in which you can store hard-copy sheets of research and information.
- A digital Research folder on your hard drive, divided into sub-folders for each section of your research. If you choose this option, make sure to back up your files regularly to avoid losing data.
- A notebook full of handwritten notes, clippings and snippets of information.
- A set of research files in a novel-writing program such as Scrivener. These kinds of programs are great for storing information, and because your novel and your research are stored in the one place, it’s easy to access them simultaneously. (Again, as with any digital method, ensure you back up your files religiously.)
Whichever method of research storage you choose, ensure it’s easily navigable, accessible, and well-organised. Trust me – you’ll thank your past self when you’re in the midst of the writing process and know exactly where to refer to that specific piece of information!
2. Read, read, and read some more
As a writer, you’re probably a voracious reader already (and if not, you should be!). All reading helps to improve your craft, your knowledge and your story, but when you’re researching a novel, your reading will have to kick up a notch.
Whether it’s books, newspapers, online articles or any other source of written material, reading is going to be your primary method of attack when it comes to novel research. Let’s take a look at the different kinds of reading you’ll need to do in preparation for writing your book.
Read texts on your subject matter
Obviously, your chosen subject matter will be the first thing you start investigating.
Writing a crime novel? You’ll need to research things like murder weapons, forensics, and past criminal cases. Writing a romance novel set in modern-day Rome? You’ll need to pay Italy a virtual visit by reading as much as you can about its capital city. Writing historical fiction set in medieval Europe? Time to learn everything you can about that period in history.
‘But I’m a poor, struggling writer,’ you might be thinking. ‘How am I going to afford all these books I need for research?’ Well, two words will solve that problem, my friend…
If you’re not already a frequent visitor, it’s time to acquaint yourself with your local library. It’s free to become a member, and most libraries will have hundreds, if not thousands of books on every subject imaginable.
Most libraries should have an extensive catalogue of all their resources, so all it will take is a few keyword searches to discover a wealth of information relevant to your novel. You can borrow as many books as you need, taking down notes as you read and giving yourself a solid foundation on which to build your own story.
If you’re a university student, your uni library can be a great place to start your research. University libraries often have large research collections and access to exclusive online databases.
Here’s a fact that may horrify the most dedicated bibliophiles among us: all the information you need might not necessarily be found in books.
Shocking, I know! But never fear: there’s this new-fangled thing that’s perfect for writers researching their novels, and it’s called the internet.
Think of it as your personal, digital library, full of countless pieces of information and inspiration, all available from the comfort of your own desk or armchair. Everything from online encyclopaedias and databases to blogs and digital publications can be extremely helpful in your research process.
However, there’s a caveat that comes with using the internet to research your novel: you need to be extra careful about online resources and their validity.
The internet, being the enormous, free source of information it is, can unfortunately be subject to some pretty dodgy information at times. To avoid being misinformed, ensure you’re gathering information from reliable sources, and that any facts you uncover can be validated.
It’s easy to fall into the Wikipedia trap and believe that everything written online is true, but unfortunately that’s not necessarily the case, so you’ll have to be more discerning when researching on the internet.
Read other novels dealing with similar subject matter
Research doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to reading non-fiction texts about your subject matter. You can also read other novels as a valid and useful form of research.
You can begin by reading novels that deal with a similar subject matter to your own. This will not only give you some extra information on your subject, but will also allow you to see how that subject has been covered before, and how you might approach it differently.
As well as novels with similar topics, it’s a good idea to read widely in your chosen genre. This method of research is especially helpful for writers in genres such as sci-fi and fantasy, who can’t necessarily visit the places or research the time periods featured in their entirely imagined stories. Reading other novels in your genre can help you see how other authors have tackled the process of building their own worlds. (More on researching genre and craft below.)
TIP: On Goodreads, you can often find user-generated lists of books about particular topics. Simply perform a Google search using the keywords ‘Goodreads’ and ‘novels about [insert topic]’.
For example, say your novel is about an artist. Googling ‘Goodreads novels about artists’ brings up several lists, including ‘Art & Artists in Fiction’, ‘Fiction Books Involving Art’, and ‘Books With Main Characters Who Are Artists’. These lists can give you a great place to start when deciding what novels to read as research for your own.
3. Delve into other forms of media
Books, newspapers, articles and online resources aren’t the only things that will help you with your research. While reading will likely be your primary method of gathering information, other forms of media can be extremely helpful as well.
Movies, documentaries and videos on YouTube can all be great sources of information and inspiration for writers. Whether you’re researching a place, a time period, a type of person or a particular culture, you’re sure to find some video sources that will help you understand your topic.
Sometimes, sensory sources such as video are even more helpful than written ones, as they can allow you to see, hear and virtually experience things you might not otherwise have access to. Try searching some relevant keywords on YouTube or Netflix and see what comes up.
TIP: Similarly to the Goodreads lists mentioned above, you can find movie recommendation lists online at websites like IMDb. These are also user-generated and can be found using a similar method: Google the keywords ‘IMDb’ and ‘movies about [topic]’.
After you’ve found a few movie options, it’s simply a matter of renting, purchasing, or downloading/streaming the movie (legally, of course) to provide some visual inspiration for your novel.
Images are the next-best thing to video when it comes to visual research for your novel. With millions of images available and easily accessible online, you’ll be able to get a much clearer mental picture of the things you’re writing about in your book.
Google Images and Wikipedia are great places to start – simply type in some keywords and start browsing their mammoth collections. Plenty of institutions have online image galleries, too; for example, if it’s historical images, maps or text excerpts you’re after, try something like the British Library’s online image gallery.
Google Maps is also a great tool for conducting research about locations and settings. We’ll talk more below about actually visiting real-world locations for research, but when that’s out of the question, using the Street View function of Google Maps is the next best thing.
Using Pinterest for fiction writing and novels sounds like a strange concept, but believe me – it can be super helpful! As a visual medium, Pinterest is full of all kinds of images that can be utilised for a writer’s research or inspiration.
You can browse Pinterest without becoming a member, but if you sign up for a free account, you can also create your own collages and collections using what are essentially digital ‘mood boards’.
This is a great way to organise and store images for different parts of your research. For example, you might have a Pinterest board full of images relevant to your setting, another for images of characters and clothing, and so on.
4. Talk to people.
We writers are generally a solitary bunch, but when it comes to researching a novel, sometimes it pays to step away from your desk and talk to some real people!
It might be an expert on the subject you’re writing on, a resident of the location in which your book is set, or a person who can relate to the situation one of your characters is in. It might be a friend-of-a-friend, a relative, or someone you’ve found by reaching out to your local community. Whoever you speak to, you’re likely to gain truly valuable first-hand information and insight that you just can’t get through a book or the internet.
For those who are shy about reaching out to strangers, remember that in today’s digital age, you don’t necessarily have to seek people out in person or by phone. Many internet communities exist in which you can communicate with others via online forums or messages.
Reddit is a great example. It has thousands and thousands of sections, or ‘subreddits’, dedicated to every topic imaginable. Once you’ve found your desired subject, you can search through the existing posts for information, or become a member and create your own call-out seeking answers or insight on a particular aspect of the topic.
TIP: Talking to people while researching may not only provide you with information, but also with inspiration when it comes to characters. Meeting and chatting with new people is a great way to gain insight into the way different people act and speak, and can inspire character traits or quirks in your own fiction.
5. Immerse yourself in some real-world research.
Just as it’s helpful to talk to real people in your research, it’s also extremely valuable to get out and visit some real-world places!
We spoke above about researching setting and place through various online methods. However, if at all possible, it’s always a good idea to visit the places you’re utilising in your fiction. Take some time to stroll through the location, taking in not only the sights but the sounds, smells, vibe and atmosphere of the place.
If you’re writing about a made-up setting, you can visit a similar location to inspire the place of your own invention. For example, if your novel is set in a fictional small beachside town, visit a few of these kinds of locations, and allow details from each to inspire and be woven throughout your novel’s unique setting.
TIP: Don’t assume you already know all there is to know about your setting – for example, if your novel is set in your own home town. Just because you’re already familiar with a place doesn’t mean you don’t need to conduct further research.
You don’t want to become complacent with your existing familiarity. It may mean you don’t end up truly doing your setting justice for readers who aren’t as familiar with it as you are.
6. Extend your research to craft as well as content.
When writers think of researching their novel, they usually think of investigating all the main content components we’ve covered above: setting, characters, plot elements, etc.
However, don’t just restrict your research to content alone. You should also research the craft of writing itself. This kind of research comes in two forms: style and genre.
Research on style involves learning about how to improve your skills as a writer. Whether you’re reading advice from other writers, completing writing exercises, or taking a course to further your skills and knowledge, researching the craft of writing is an essential step for any novelist.
As a writer, you should aim to constantly improve your skills and style over the course of your entire career. This means keeping up to date with advice, branching out and experimenting with your skills, and always striving to become better at your craft.
Research on genre involves learning everything you can about the genre in which you’re writing. You should be intensely familiar with your chosen genre, reading widely within it and learning from the works of other writers.
You should aim to discover where and how your own work will fit within the genre, and to think of ways you can introduce a fresh perspective.
7. Don’t get stuck on research and forget to start writing.
Phew! We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Hopefully you’re now feeling prepared and ready to get stuck into researching your novel. However, once you do start researching, it can be hard to know when to stop.
‘How long should I research for?’ is a common question asked by many writers. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer – only you will know when you have enough material to begin the writing process itself. It’s usually better to have more research material than you’ll actually need, rather than not enough.
However, you must be careful not to fall into the trap of never-ending research as a means of putting off the actual writing of your novel.
If you think this is happening to you, don’t worry – it’s completely understandable. Writing an entire book can be a daunting and overwhelming prospect, and writers want to feel as prepared as possible before they launch themselves into the drafting process.
However, there’s really no such thing as being completely prepared to write a novel. The truth is that even the most experienced writer often needs to jump in head-first and just see where the writing takes them!
Don’t spend months or years researching without writing a single word of your novel. Gather enough information and inspiration to form a solid foundation and starting point, then ease yourself into the writing. There’ll always be time for further research later on; right now, if you’ve got enough research behind you to begin, then begin.
TIP: One important final recommendation when it comes to research: not everything needs to end up on the page. This is the classic error new writers make: ‘info-dumping’ the product of their extensive research in its entirety, believing it will make for a better story.
The truth is that readers don’t want to be spoon-fed every single piece of information. They’re not reading a research report, after all; they’re reading a novel.
Weave details into your story sparingly, and allow your research to inform your writing as subtly as possible. When it’s clear you know what you’re talking about, your readers will, too. There’s no need to overload them with detail and information.